Artist unknown: The dilemma of the Nottoway Stone Image

About 61 years ago, a boy wandered among loblolly pines near an agricultural field not far from the Nottoway River in southern Virginia in the USA. His eyes fell upon a tan coloured rock atop a thick layer of old needles at the bases of the pines. It was a curiosity – the coastal plain Southampton County does not feature rocks reposing at the surface. Young Lloyd Bryant turned over the rounded chunk of stone and was jolted to see an etched human face staring back (Fig. 1).

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Very down-to-earth Vasquez rocks portray the surface of alien planets for the media

Deborah Painter (USA) They have become associated with stark alien or other-dimensional landscapes since the 1960s, when the popular American television programme Star Trek used them as dramatic backdrops in two episodes, “Arena” and “Friday’s Child”. Prior to that, the Vasquez Rocks of Agua Dulce in California were a favoured location for American Western programmes, such as Branded, Cheyenne, Zorro and The Adventures of Champion, as well as motion pictures like One Million BC (1940) and Apache (1954), when rocky areas with hiding places, wide overlooks and an overall arid, rugged look were needed. More recent films and television programmes tend to exploit their odd appearance (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), Army of Darkness (1993) and John Carter (2012)). Some films with no fantasy elements also use the rocks as a backdrop, one example being the family “road” comedy, Little Miss Sunshine, released in 2006. Fig. 1. The much-photographed side of the Vasquez Rocks pinnacle and main film staging area. (Photo: Michael Ramsey.) In fact, the Vasquez Rocks now have the distinction of being an overexposed outdoor location simply because of their proximity to the big city of Los Angeles’ filmmaking industry, hence their presence in scores of films, television programmes and music videos. Only about 64.5km from Los Angeles, the Vasquez Rocks are off State Highway 14, between Acton and Santa Clarita in California, USA and can be seen from Highway 14. The signs will direct the motorist to the exit that leads to the Vasquez Rocks … Read More

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Gravel sheets in the suburbs of Washington, DC

Deborah Painter (USA) If you live in western Prince George’s County, Maryland in the USA, in the towns of Oxon Hill and Suitland and you want to dig to place a water line, plant a garden or excavate to construct a foundation for any building, chances are you will encounter sandy soil with hundreds of cobbles and boulders. Some boulders encountered could be in the form of large flattened slabs. You might be wondering why these are present, since these towns are in a coastal plain, far south and east of the rocky outcrops of the Piedmont area of Virginia and Maryland. For someone like me, who was born and raised in the Coastal Plain area of Virginia, these ubiquitous cobbles and boulders seemed out of character for the region. I discovered these odd boulders and cobbles when I joined a colleague from an office in a northern state to assist him in ecological studies for two small sites not too far from the United States Capital of Washington, in the District of Columbia (DC). Our goal was to help our client know if there were any threatened or endangered species, wetlands, hazardous materials or other site constraints, as this would assist the client to decide whether to purchase the properties. Our first Prince George’s County site for an ecological study was one of a few hectares in size in Suitland, a suburb of Washington, DC and approximately 8km southeast of the border of the capital city near the shore … Read More

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Colorado mountain memories

Steven Wade Veatch (USA) While headed for the California Gold Rush of 1849, George Giggey (who was my great-great-grandfather) first made his way through the mountainous and untamed wilderness of what would later become Colorado. He was among a group of young men, who were determined to make a new life, fortune and future in the American West. After working in the Californian goldfields, he turned his attention to Colorado, where he prospected for gold for a while and then returned to the East. In 1865, George Giggey returned to Colorado with his family of ten children and built a homestead in the wilderness near what would become, in just a few years, the town of Caribou. The town developed around the Caribou silver mine that was discovered by Sam Conger in 1868. George Lytle, one of Conger’s partners, was from British Columbia and named the mine after his caribou hunting trips in Canada. By 1870, the Caribou Mine was in full production and was shipping ore down Coon Trail, to the nearby settlement of Nederland for processing. By 1872, the frontier town of Caribou built a much needed schoolhouse. Three of George Giggey’s boys attended Caribou’s first school session. They were: George Leon (my great-grandfather), who was 14 years old; Adelbert, age 7; and Charley, who was only 6 years old. I can feel the boy’s excitement when they took their seats in the one-room schoolhouse, with new furniture, blackboards, maps, globes and a new teacher – Miss Hannah … Read More

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Hutton’s unconformity and the birth of ‘Deep Time’

Dr Mark Wilkinson (UK) I sometimes ask a question to students in an introductory class about geology: “What is the most famous geological site in the world?” For students from the western hemisphere, the Grand Canyon in the USA is a popular choice. However, if you were to ask the same question to a group of geologists, you might get a different answer, and one option is Siccar Point on the coast some 65km southeast of Edinburgh in Scotland. Although the site itself is relatively modest, a gently sloping platform of rock partly washed by the sea at high tide, and it lacks the spectacular grandeur of the Grand Canyon, the historical significance easily outweighs the lack of scenic drama. I’ve taken several groups of visiting geologists to the site, and so far only one of them has knelt and kissed the ground, but the site could be considered to be one of the ‘holy’ sites of our science. It is difficult for most modern geologists to imagine the world when any interpretation of the geological record had to be constrained by the literal interpretation of the Bible. A particular problem is the short timescale of the account of the creation of the Earth in Genesis, and the age of the Earth as calculated by Bishop Ussher, who allowed only some 6,000 years for the whole of geological time. The person who is frequently credited with expanding geological time to the ‘deep time’ we know of today is James Hutton. … Read More

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Nebraska, USA: Wonderful fossils, natural history museums and public art depicting fossils

Robert F Diffendal, Jr (USA) Nebraska is known by vertebrate palaeontologists as the place in North America where there is a very complete Cenozoic geologic record of mammalian evolution over the last thirty-five million years or so. All you have to do is visit any of the many major natural history museums in the USA and in many countries around the world, including the UK, to see fossil skulls, articulated skeletons and large slabs of rock containing bones of fossil mammals from Nebraska to verify this assertion. Nebraska is also the site of Cretaceous rocks containing the oldest known Cretaceous fossil flower and many other parts from fossil plants. It also contains dinosaur footprints and trackways, and skeletons of marine plesiosaurs, mosasaurs and large marine fish, as well as terrestrial and marine invertebrate fossils and marine microfossils. Upper Carboniferous rocks exposed at the surface in parts of south-eastern Nebraska have yielded fossil terrestrial plant fossils, marine stromatolites and other marine plant fossils, marine invertebrates, fish and even some fossil bones of amphibians and early reptiles. All in all, Nebraska is a vast storehouse of wonderful fossils that continues today to yield them up to collectors, both professional and amateur. These fossils can be found on both private and public lands, and in state and federal parks and museums. To match this geological heritage, Nebraska (a large state in area with a small population) has a wonderful natural history museum – the University of Nebraska State Museum (UNSM) – on the … Read More

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Book reviews: Fossils on the floor in the Nebraska State Capitol

Nebraska has an excellent geology record, which is celebrated by some fine mosaics at the Nebraska State Capitol. When the building was being constructed, and at the request of Prof Hartley Burr Alexander of the University of Nebraska Philosophy Department and from drawings by his colleague Dr Erwin H Barbour (former director of the University of Nebraska State Museum), the artist, Hildreth Meière, was asked to create a series of mosaics.

Thomas Jefferson’s mammoth problem

James Smith (USA) Author of the Declaration of Independence, creator of the University of Virginia, a Founding Father and third president of the USA, Thomas Jefferson was a pioneer. Of this, you are undoubtedly aware. And, like most pioneers, Jefferson fostered an interest in virtually every aspect of science. This appetite for knowledge propelled him to organise the Lewis and Clark Expedition into the then-uncharted western area of the continent, brought under American governance by the Louisiana Purchase, which took place during his presidency. Considered an expert in civil engineering, anatomy, architecture, anthropology, physics, mechanics, meteorology, navigation, ethnology, botany and geography, it is not surprising that Jefferson was also a pioneer in our own field – palaeontology. “Science is my passion,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “politics is my duty”. It could almost be said that he was as much of a pioneer in science as in law and politics – indeed, although we may remember his political pursuits as his most historically-resonant, his scientific achievements were pretty admirable. “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science,” he wrote, “rendering them my supreme delight.” Christopher Hitchens thought that, were Jefferson born a decade later, he would have been one of the finest palaeontologists in history. However, as it was, Jefferson was still looking at mountains and asking how shells got so high up on the mountaintop. The side project of many an eighteenth century American scientist was the study of mysterious teeth, bones and seven-foot tusks yielded by swamps and riverbeds. … Read More

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